The chaotic and unpredictable 60-game Major League Baseball season is heading into its final week, and arguably no team has been more of a microcosm of the recent chaos than the San Francisco Giants.
After relative smooth sailing for about a month, the Giants have had games postponed by a protest, a positive coronavirus test and most recently a smoke-out in Seattle, where nearby fires caused hazardous breathing conditions at T-Mobile Park.
It’s been a lot to cope with, as the Giants are making an unexpected run at the National League’s Wild Card playoff spots.
“I think it has been the sum of the parts,” San Francisco’s first-year manager Gabe Kapler said Wednesday when asked about the toughest aspect of this season. “We’ve had these challenges from the beginning. A lot of other clubs have had these challenges as well. But it’s also an opportunity for us to step up and meet [them].”
To be sure, the Giants aren’t the only team to deal with issues and remain standing, during this season without fans at big-league ballparks. Once the season ends Sept. 27, the eight best-of-three Wild Card Series will begin two days later in the American League cities; the NL’s opening round begins Sept. 30.
Sixteen teams are eligible for the expanded playoffs this year: eight in each league—the top two teams in each division, plus the next two teams with the best record in each league. In the past it has been 10 total, five teams in each league.
The next three playoff rounds are scheduled in the bubbles of Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium, San Diego’s Petco Park, Houston’s Minute Maid Park and the new Globe Life Field, which will also host the World Series slated to begin Oct. 20 under its roof, in Arlington, Texas.
“It’s been a test of character, and it’s been a test of wills, fighting through frustration,” said Torey Lovullo, who manages the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that’s last in the NL West and didn’t overcome the obstacles. “The most difficult part? Adjusting to and getting used to the new normals.”
Or as D-backs injured pitcher Merrill Kelly put it, referring to every other day COVID tests: “Once we got rolling and you got accustomed to spitting in a tube every other day, and wearing a mask, I think for most people it became normal.”
Miami, Oakland, St. Louis and Cincinnati went beyond all that, having dealt with positive COVID-19 tests among the players and are still either solidifying postseason berths or in the hunt.
Toronto hasn’t played a game in Canada this season and is nestled in seventh place—the AL’s top Wild Card spot—with 11 games remaining in the final 10 days. The Buffalo Blue Jays are barely hanging in there after allowing a Major-League record 19 homers in a three-game sweep this week by the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium, including five alone during Thursday night’s fourth inning.
Cleveland banned two top starting pitchers—Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger—for ignoring COVID protocols. Plesac is back with the team, and Clevinger has since been traded to San Diego. But the Indians seem locked into at least eighth place, the AL’s second Wild Card slot.
Perhaps the Marlins are MLB’s most incredible story. Stripped bare in an endless rebuild even before the coronavirus hit and delayed the start of the season for four months, Miami has a $31.3 million prorated player payroll, 27th among the 30 MLB teams. The club was stopped in its tracks on July 26, when 18 players and three staff members ultimately tested positive for the virus.
Utilizing a team that was restructured mostly from their alternate camp, the Marlins didn’t play again until Aug. 4. And yet, they are in second place in the NL East, fifth overall, and if the postseason started today, they would play the fourth-place Padres in a best-of-three set at Petco Park.
“This has obviously been fun to watch the guys go through this,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “I know they’re learning so much. This is the best style of ball to be playing, because it turns into a team. It’s not your numbers or how you’re doing. It turns into how the team is doing.”
To further underscore the unpredictability of this season, the Marlins haven’t made the playoffs since winning the 2003 World Series over the New York Yankees. The Padres haven’t been to the postseason since 2006 and haven’t enjoyed a .500 season since 2010.
Let’s forget the fact that during a typical 162-game season, 60 games would basically put the schedule at Memorial Day with a long way to go for either team. Instead, Mattingly and San Diego’s new skipper Jayce Tingler are favorites to win Manager of the Year honors in the NL.
Such postseason mainstays as the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and Atlanta Braves will be back in. But in the NL, six of the eight teams didn’t make the playoffs last year, plus the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals have had an awful season and are out.
In the AL, all five teams from last year are back, adding the Indians, Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox as newcomers. The White Sox haven’t made the playoffs since 2008. That’s once since sweeping the Astros in the 2005 World Series.
“The playoffs are a little bit of a different blend for 2020, but we all knew the ground rules,” Lovullo said, “that it was going to be 60 games and that it was going to be a sprint. Maybe some teams got used to that a little bit quicker than others. It’s given an opportunity in this short look for teams to get hot and remain hot.”
The Giants weren’t expected to even be in this position. Bruce Bochy retired as manager in 2019, the club’s third losing season in a row after last making the playoffs in 2016. Under Kapler and Farhan Zaidi, the president of baseball operations, player personnel has been a revolving door.
Only shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt remain from the team that won the World Series in 2012 and ’14. Buster Posey, who was a rookie catcher when they won in 2010 and played on all three winning teams, opted out of the season after adopting newborn twins, but still has cast a long shadow.
“Buster Posey is never out of sight or out of mind for us,” Kapler said. “He’s front of mind for us. We’re always thinking about him and know he’s taking care of his family right now.”
His vacated position has been in flux as the Giants have tried an array of catchers, including rookie Joey Bart, their first-round pick (second overall) in the 2018 amateur draft.
They’ll also finish with 11 games in the final 10 days, including a doubleheader vs. the Padres Sept. 25 in San Francisco to make up a game lost to COVID last weekend. The Cardinals, who missed 16 days in August because nine players tested positive for COVID, are right at their heels, as are the Philadelphia Phillies.
If the Giants finish eighth, they will play the arch-rival Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in that best-of-three game mini-series, the first time the two teams will face each other in the postseason. The Dodgers, who’ve already clinched a playoff spot, are on the way to their eighth consecutive NL West title.
It’s all been a learning experience.
“I think so,” said Kapler, coming off a disastrous two seasons managing in Philadelphia. “The challenges have been great this season. That’s helped us come together as a group. We’ve learned that we’re capable of having different routines and still be able to come to the ballpark, compete and enjoy ourselves.”